Understanding the Difference Between Gender, Sex, and Sexual Orientation

Understanding the Difference Between Gender, Sex, and Sexual Orientation

There are a kajillion subsets that we like to use to organize and measure certain information about society. We use socioeconomic status, age, race, ethnicity, culture, and language to name a few. We also use the subset “sex.” Sex refers to male, female, and other/intersex. From here it can get a little tricky for some people who conflate the term “sex” with the gender spectrum and sexual orientation. It’s not all the same.

While they do intersect, gender identity, gender expression, sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, and romantic orientation aren’t synonymous with one another. They aren’t lumped under one big umbrella marked “gender.”

Sex assigned at birth refers to just that- the sex someone was assigned to when they were born based on the presentation of their genitals.

Someone’s gender identity may or may not be the same as their sex. If someone was assigned female at birth and they also identify, she might use the term “cisgender” to describe her gender identity. (This term was coined around 1994 and is credited to biologist Dana Leland Defosse, “cis” meaning “on this side of.”) If someone was assigned male at birth but identifies as female, she might use the term “transgender” to describe her gender identity. (This term was coined between 1969-1971 by American transgender activist Virginia Prince “trans” meaning “across, beyond, or on the other side of”.) Not everyone identifies using the neat and binary terms of cisgender and transgender. Some people identify as agender, gender queer, gender nonconforming.

So, then what exactly is gender? Gender identity refers to woman/female/girl, man/male/boy, and other gender identities. Gender expression refers to feminine, masculine, and other. Gender is a limitless spectrum that can often be influenced by our experience of ourselves and of the world, our culture, and our sex assigned at birth. Some people identify with the sex they were assigned at birth (cisgender) and choose not to conform to the gender norms created by their culture. Some people identify as transgender and also choose not to conform to said gender norms. As many people as there are on earth is how many gender expressions there are. People identify as trans, but don’t take hormones or do take hormones, but don’t have surgery. Some people identify as cis but have surgery to alter their bodies to fit how they feel. It is limitless.

In all of this, nowhere did sexual orientation surface. This is because it’s a different part of us- different, but related. Sexual orientation refers to someone’s sexual attraction to men, women, and other genders. Romantic orientation refers to someone’s romantic attraction to men, women, and other genders. Someone can identify as bisexual, heterosexual, gay, lesbian, queer, questioning, and other identities. If someone is trans, it does not mean they identify as queer or gay or lesbian, etc. People can be trans and straight, trans and gay, trans and queer, cis and queer. We can identify as cis, straight, and romantically attracted to women. The combinations are nearly endless.

This post is by no means exhaustive on the subject of gender, sex, and sexual orientation. It’s a bit of a window out of which you might consider who you are, who we are, and the ways in which we can express this to ourselves and the world.

Love and Be Loved,

Come Out, Come Out Whoever You Are

Come Out, Come Out Whoever You Are

Expressing our authentic selves can be terrifying. We risk rejection, disappointment, loss, and sometimes even violence. On the other hand, we stand to gain a life lived in integrity with who we are, more intimacy with our loved ones, acceptance, joy, and satisfaction. If we choose to stay closeted about who we are, we risk living our lives imprisoned.

There are a million ways in which we “come out of the closet” and, although they’re not all comparable, they’re all challenging to make known. We can come out as Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, GenderQueer, a survivor of abuse, polyamorous, religious, having a criminal history, a sex worker, nonreligious, an addict, recovering from an illness or disease… There is no limit.

Some closets are harder than others to come out of due to prejudices, culture climates, and phobias. It’s not always safe to make ourselves vulnerable and come out of our closets. If we live in a culture or an environment where we could suffer violence and abuse, coming out might be dangerous for us.

When we keep important parts of our identity secret, we keep a chasm between the people with whom we are in a relationship and us. There is so much we don’t share- our thoughts, our feelings, our wishes, our goals… ourselves. A part of us lives unseen and silent. Having to deny or invisibilize such important parts of ourselves often leads to isolation, depression, anxiety, low self- esteem, self-injury, and suicide.

We feel caught dangling from the precipice of the chasm. If we take the leap and reveal ourselves will we plummet and end up in the void or will we make it to the other side? Many of us spend years, decades even, dangling from this edge, afraid to make a step in any direction.

There is so much to consider when we reveal deep parts of ourselves. Will my support network continue to support me? Will I be safe? Will I be accepted? Will they still love me if I let them see who I am? Sometimes it feels like we have to give up important parts of ourselves to keep the love and support of the people close to us.

Coming out, making ourselves visible, being vulnerable is a painful process by definition. It’s the act of opening ourselves up to attack and harm, scrutiny and judgment. It’s stripping our souls of their protective cloaks and allowing ourselves to stand naked.

Ultimately, all any of us wants is to be loved and accepted. We want to know that our loved ones see us, that regardless of their agreement with and understanding of our choices they want to understand us, and that they love us. We want to know that we’re ok.

So, I want you to know that you are ok. No matter who you are, who you love, what you’ve done, who you want to be, how you want to live, as long as you are not hurting or oppressing anyone, you are ok. You are worthy of love and acceptance, and you are ok.


Love and Be Loved,

Creating a Work/Life Balance

Creating a Work/Life Balance

If you’re cruising a sweet balance between your work life and the rest of your life, stop reading now. Congratulations! You don’t need this post. If you’re struggling to find a schedule that works for you and searching for ways to feel more satisfied in life, then this post is for you.

People come to me all the time seeking help with creating a work/life balance. There’s a pretty limitless amount of reasons why people have a tough time creating this balance. Most people can look at a few aspects of their lives and modulate them.

First, make a list of the things you have to do (like earn money, take care of your kids, chores, etc.) and the things you want to do (school, art classes, travel, hobbies, etc.). Sometimes this isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. Like, if exercise is critical to maintaining your emotional and physical health and you’re just not the same without it, it wouldn’t go into the “want to do” pile; you’d put it in the “have to do” pile. So, it’s important to look at your values and unique needs when organizing these lists.

Next, identify your obstacles and their possible solutions. For instance, if you know that watching television before you go to bed regularly tempts you into making it to bed too late making you wake up zapped and sluggish before work, set a cut-off time for an hour before you want to be in bed. If your schedule requires you to work late one night and then turn around and be back to work early the next morning, plan for it by making your week’s worth of lunches at the beginning of the week or some variation of that. Invest in some dry shampoo to significantly cut your shower time for that day. Ask your partner to help make sure the daily chores get done. The most important part of identifying obstacles and solutions is the cognition around it. Maintaining awareness of your obstacles and how you want to handle them tempers your stress because you’re aware of your choices and what you’re doing to address the stress. It feels less like life is just happening to you.

Time management is another important aspect of finding balance. If you know, you often get distracted at the beginning of or during tasks, identify what happens for yourself and how you can rectify it. Some of this will inevitably require some willpower; you’ll have to wait to go on social media sites or not get coffee with a coworker or stop cuddling with your dog so that you can make dinner. Time management is more than just making sure you do what needs to be done when it needs to be done in the order that it needs to be done. It’s also about what’s happening for you emotionally and cognitively. If you’ve just worked out, and now you’re walking your dog before work and you start thinking about how the dog still hasn’t pooped, and you have to do a million and one things at work, get the oil changed, come home and make dinner, take a shower… you’re not managing the time you’re in right now which is the present. You’re stressing yourself out when there’s nothing you can do because you can’t speed up time and you can’t make your dog poop faster than he’s going to poop. Part of successful time management is mindfulness so, keep bringing yourself back to what you’re doing right now. You’ll get to that other stuff.

Learn how to say no and stick to it. This will give you oodles of time and relieve you from so much unnecessary stress. Say no to Steve at work who always asks you to help him with his reports. Say no to meetings that you aren’t required to attend. Say no to the neighbor who wants to talk for 20 minutes when you are just coming home from work. Say no to the millions of distractions online or on T.V. when they are trying to suck you in. By saying no to other people and things, you’ll get to start saying yes to your peace of mind (which is what this balance is about in the first place).

Create a daily schedule for yourself and stick to it for four weeks so that you can see how it feels to use a routine. Keep the integrity of the schedule by sticking to whatever you have assigned for each time slot. You can always go back to your free-form schedule if you find a routine too confining. This is helpful both at home and at work. (It is especially helpful if you work from home where the distractions are plentiful and insidious.) Keep in mind that you’re going to have to leave the office before you’ve finished every single task on your to-do list. I know it’s stressful to leave work knowing you have more emails to answer, phone calls to return, and reports to write. But there will always be more. You will always have more work to do. You can finish your emails, but more will appear in your inbox. More calls will come in. More reports will need to be written. It’s up to you to decide where the day’s cutoff is, and it’s up to you to stick to it.

This brings us to using a flexible mindset when something interferes with a previously scheduled block. Maybe your car breaks down, or your kid’s school calls you to pick them up for some reason or your computer crashes. You will drive yourself crazy if you freak out too much about unforeseen problems. This is not a time for freaking out. This is a time for mindfulness and identifying the obstacles and their solutions.

And finally, cut yourself some slack. You’re a person, and you’re going to make mistakes, run into snags, and might be dealing with other challenges like anxiety, depression, grief or something else. Remind yourself that you’re doing a good job. And maybe read Sarah Knight’s The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck. It’ll bring you some much-needed levity and insight into learning to let go.


Love and Be Loved,

9 Behaviors for a Healthy Relationship

9 Behaviors for a Healthy Relationship

I get a lot of questions about what makes a successful relationship, and while each relationship is unique, there are some standard behaviors you can employ that will propel you toward success. At first, this shift in behavior can feel clunky and even a little stressful. Don’t worry about it. If you practice this stuff enough, it’ll become a habit. And don’t get me wrong. Sure, on the one hand, it’s a challenging shift, but it’s also totally worth it.

Ok, so here we go.

1) If the iconic ‘80s show, The Facts of Life, taught us anything it was that “you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both.” Accept your partner for the whole person they are, someone with wonderful gifts, adorable traits, and irritating quirks. It’s along the lines of a pick-your-battles situation. Everyone has flaws. You can’t change that. And seriously, you cannot change that so don’t try. It’s fine to fight about them. In fact, you will, and this is totally healthy (as long as you’re using fair fighting techniques). But if you want your relationship to be successful you’ll need to be able to accept your partner’s flaws and remember why you’re with them. Don’t be with someone if you think they’ll make a good partner as long as they change core parts about themselves. It’ll only invite hurt, drama, and resentment. Be with someone whose imperfections you can deal with on a regular basis.

2) Empathic honesty without blame is what it’s all about. You don’t have to be brutally honest. In fact, I don’t recommend it. You love this person and you’re expressing yourself honestly for your relationship to overcome something so, there’s no need to take an aggressive approach. You’ll also want to move away from using blame while delivering your honesty. It will be easier for your partner to listen and you’re message will be clearer if you leave blame out of it.

3) Communicate your needs, feelings, and experiences directly. Don’t expect your partner to read your mind; say what you need to say. Open and honest communication can be intimidating for a myriad of reasons, but it’s worth it. The alternative is clamming up about it and relying on dropping hints and passive aggressive communication. For the love of everything holy, please don’t do this. Your partner ends up getting confused (understandably) and you end up building resentment toward them when they inevitably don’t meet your needs. When you clearly and directly state your needs you not only avoid unnecessary strife, you also give your partner a chance to show up for you which builds trust and intimacy.

4) Don’t be a victim. Engaging a victim perspective positions you and your partner against one another which strips away the intimacy you’re working so hard to build. Instead, be a champion for yourself and advocate for what you need. Using number 2 and 3 is a great way to do this. When you communicate using empathic honesty and direct messaging you’ll feel empowered, and your partner will feel like a valued member of your partnership.     

5) Look for the best in your partner. You started dating this person for a reason. You’ve continued dating them for a reason. Once the initial excitement wears off, and you’ve gotten a few fights under your belt, it’s pretty easy to let those reasons fade from memory. The solution isn’t always easy, but it’s simple. Look for the best. Look for what your partner does right, for the loving intentions behind their behavior, and for what gifts your partner brings to your life. When you actively look for the reasons why you love your partner you become more supportive, more charitable, and more loving. You become a better partner. (Looking for the best in your partner also makes it much easier to put their mistakes and flaws into reasonable perspective.)

6) Stop keeping score. This is a kind of opposite to looking for the best in your partner. With score-keeping, not only are you looking for all the things they did wrong, but you’re also not letting mistakes become part of the past. There are many reasons for doing this. You might keep score so that you can hold it as currency. You might use these wrongdoings as reasons to do something you shouldn’t or to not do something you should. Or maybe you use them as a way to absolve yourself from your misdeeds. This hurts the relationship because you set the default to “look for the faults” with your partner instead of “look for the best.” Use number 1 to help you out with this. Remind yourself to be with your partner now, not yesterday, a week ago, five years ago. Remind yourself that you choose this person which means you choose to be with their mistakes. You might also feel tempted to keep score about sacrifices you make for the person, good deeds, and favors. Don’t. This is an effective way of building resentment on your end and mistrust of your gifts on theirs.

7) Spend time together, time engaged in parallel activities, and time apart. It’s not healthy to spend every waking second together so don’t. Couples need a balance of time together with various levels of engagement and time apart. The time you spend directly engaged with your partner is beneficial for building and maintaining intimacy. It gives you the chance to have shared experiences which can enrich the narrative of your relationship. Time spent together, but less engaged (like when one of you is playing Angry Birds, and the other is cooking, or you’re reading separate books) is also enriching and allows you to maintain your individuality while simultaneously enjoying the company of the other. The time you spend part from one another is critical for maintaining your relationship with yourself, your individuality, and your self-sufficiency. When you prioritize time apart, you allow yourselves to experience new things to take back and share with your partner which is also pretty attractive.

8) Let go of some conflicts. Of course, it’s important to address conflict and find resolutions, but there is such a thing as resolving something to death. The truth is, you’re just not going to resolve every single problem, and that’s ok. This is where numbers 1, 5, and 6 can help you out. Accept the other person’s differences and flaws, remember why you’re with them and don’t keep a tally of all the times they’ve hurt you or pissed you off. And know that you are going to have recurring disagreements and arguments; it’s part of being in a long term relationship.

9) Know when to let go of the relationship. This plays as big a role as the others in creating a successful relationship because said relationship might be the one after the relationship you’re in currently. Sometimes you’re ill-matched and there’s nothing you can do to change it since changing it would mean altering core parts of yourselves. Knowing when to end it helps you to bring the relationship to a close in a healthy way and move onto a more successful partnership whether that means being with yourself for a while or being with someone else. The important thing is to be in integrity with yourself and your values.


Love and Be Loved,

After the Hurt

After the Hurt

We’ve all said or done hurtful things either by accident or intentionally. If we’re in a relationship long enough, it’s bound to happen. The injury can happen for many reasons. Sometimes we feel hurt so we hurt back. Sometimes we’re carrying around so much hurt from past relationships that we act from a defensive (or offensive) place. Sometimes we expect to be hurt, so we hurt first.

After we’ve hurt someone we love so many feelings are likely to surface. We might experience guilt, shame, residual anger at the other person, anger at ourselves, and sadness. We want to apologize for our actions, but we don’t know how or where to start. And the difficulty of extending an apology is exacerbated by our anger at the other person if we feel hurt by them, too. It’s pretty common to succumb to the temptation of sweeping it under the rug and forgetting about it (until the next time).

And while it is easier to forget about it in the short term, this is a dicey way to go. When we don’t hold ourselves accountable for wrongdoing, we send messages to our loved ones that we aren’t prioritizing their feelings, that dealing with conflict is too scary, that we aren’t concerned with their experience, and that we have difficulty with interconnectedness. Withholding an apology is a way to cut off intimacy and garner fear and resentment in the relationship, things that, over time, can kill a relationship. Most of us let this happen unintentionally. We’re not necessarily trying to sabotage the relationship (at least not consciously).

So, how can we do our part to keep this from happening? We have to show our loved one empathy and take responsibility. This starts with getting ourselves back on track. We have to remind ourselves what our values are and the importance of the relationship. This will help us stay in integrity with ourselves when we start the conversation and maintain our resolve when it starts to feel uncomfortable (because it will).

Once we’ve grounded ourselves in our values and our commitment to our loved one, we can come to them in an attempt to make peace. Sometimes we come to them, and they’re not ready to talk about it. That’s ok. This process is not about absolving ourselves of anything; it’s about showing integrity and love to the other person. It’s important to give respect and wait until they’re ready.

When they are ready to start the conversation, we should begin by taking responsibility for whatever it is we did or said. The most important thing is not that we start off by effusively apologizing; that indicates that our primary goal is to be forgiven, that this whole process is about making ourselves feel better. The most important thing is to let the person know we see them, that we understand what we did wrong, and that we want to know how they experienced the hurt. So we listen.

Next, we validate them. We listen to them, and we validate their experience. We make room for them as they communicate how they feel about what happened. This is not the time for us to defend ourselves or to explain our actions. This is the time for us to listen to the other person’s experience.

Finally, we show empathy. We let the other person know that we can understand how they might be feeling. If this understanding eludes us, we can ask supportive questions to help us identify with them.

Ok, so we take responsibility, listen, validate, show empathy. There is a time in the conversation to explain what was happening for us, and it’s now. After we’ve taken responsibility, listened, validated, and shown empathy, we can communicate our experience.

It’s a little tough-going at first, but this process is incredibly rewarding. It nurtures the relationship. If you have any questions or need some clarification, please let me know.


Love and Be Loved,

Advice for Anyone Seeking Therapy or Counseling

Advice for Anyone Seeking Therapy or Counseling

I’ll admit that when I’ve experienced a problem I’ve waited until I’m pretty desperate to address it. I’ve also waited until I just can’t take it anymore to get help. First, there are the, “Oh, maybe it’ll resolve itself” thoughts. Then I think, “Well, it hasn’t gone away, but I’ll just look around out there to see if there’s anything that seems helpful.” It’s usually around the “I can’t go on like this” thinking that I’ll decide to seek help and by that time, I’ve been white knuckling it for so long that I’m craving instant relief and resolution.

Sound familiar?

This happens all the time. Many of us don’t seek a solution at the first or second sign of a problem. There are many reasons why people don’t seek help right away. Sometimes it’s pride, sometimes fear. Some of us grew up in homes with unresponsive adults on whom we couldn’t depend for help so, we learned that healthy support isn’t an option. Many of us believe that our circumstances are “just the way life is” and we don’t believe a better alternative is available to us. Whatever the reason behind it, the longer problems exacerbate, the more resources we burn through trying to hang in there.

Often, by the time a person reaches my couch they’re ready to either quit a job, send their kid away, get a divorce, cut off their family, or throw in some other kind of towel. They’re over it (and they’ve been over it) and are looking immediate relief. They’re hoping for a major shift in the first session or two. And this can make for a pretty rough start to therapy.

There are some therapeutic protocols that can yield faster results, but they’re not indicated for every presentation. When they are indicated, there is often a lot of groundwork that has to be constructed before any of these modalities can take hold for a person. It takes practice to become more self-aware of our behavior, to gain insight, to change our thoughts, and to change our behavior. It’s a process.

It’s not that it takes years and years of therapy before anyone can benefit from its tools. It’s just that it’s not going to change things overnight. It took time and action for the problem to build, and it will take time and action for it to resolve. Therapy can sometimes be a painful, scary, and frustrating endeavor. It’s also totally worth it.

So, if you’re reading this and have been thinking about starting therapy, go ahead and start making the calls to the therapists who seem like they might be a good fit for you. If you’re reading this after what feels like a failed therapy attempt or still need to know more about what to expect, read on.

You probably already know that there is no magic elixir, no magic pill or incantation or book that will make all (or any) of your problems disappear. Therapy doesn’t offer a magic cure either. What it does offer is a supportive space to tell your story, reflect with an experienced professional on what has and hasn’t worked and why, and practice new ways of trying to work out the problem. Sometimes people report that it’s felt as though things have gotten worse before they’ve gotten better. It’s messy and challenging to open up the can of worms we’ve been carrying around for years. Other people say that it felt more like slow and steady progress. There are people who felt like they made progress and then crashed again or plateaued. As many people as you gather in a room are as many different stories about the therapeutic experience.

Sometimes you won’t find the right therapist for you, and that will be frustrating. Sometimes you will find the right therapist, and you’ll be frustrated by certain questions or homework assignments or the fact that you have opened up to a stranger, and you’re still really suffering. This is all part of it. In therapy, on your road to wherever it is you want to be, you are going to feel a multitude of emotions, some uncomfortable, some wonderful. You are going to try things that work, and you’re going to try things that don’t work so well. You’re going to make gains, and you’re going to have setbacks. The difference is you won’t be doing it alone. You’ll be doing all of this with an enlisted ally who wants you to succeed, who reflects back to you what they see, and who will offer variations on an approach based on their intimate knowledge of you, your situations, and human behavior.

If you can work through the intermittent discomfort, there’s a whole other world waiting for you on the other side.


Love and Be Loved,